Building out the UK edge

18 October 2021 | Melanie Mingas

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Almost 10 months into its £8 million nationwide edge project across the UK, Pulsant CTO Simon Michie tells Melanie Mingas that things are right on track

In January Pulsant unveiled a nationwide networking project with an investment of £8 million. Intending to create – and maintain – a network capable of delivering sub-5ms latency to more than 95% of the UK population, Pulsant needed a partner that could keep up.

Enter Zayo. No introduction needed, but it’s worth noting that for this project the EQT-owned firm is providing its “unique, low-latency fibre network”, which will take the edge to the UK’s regions via 10 Pulsant data centres.

With the project in its third and final phase at the time of writing, the resulting “digital ecosystem” is on track for its March 2022 completion date.

“We have a plan, a funded plan, to lead on building out the UK edge infrastructure and become the bridge between London and the rest of the country, to provide not just network services but also cloud services that are designed for new workloads and can reach into the regions,” says CTO Simon Michie, adding that “the micro-edge and masts” are not on the agenda.

Joining the firm in March this year, Michie is tasked with setting the technical direction of the business “and then driving the business towards that”.

“For quite a long time we have seen the centralisation of services into the cloud and essentially the customer site,” he says. “It’s fascinating that this industry works on an inhale, exhale cycle. I think we are seeing an exhale cycle just starting, which is moving workloads back to nearer the users and devices that use them, and that drives the edge requirement in the UK.”

The strategy is well timed. This year has seen the UK host to a number of firsts – from supercomputers in its data centres to the debut of quantum computing as-a-service (QCaaS) provider OQC. In tandem, 5G, IoT, hyperscale-style enterprises and even cryptocurrency mining are all driving more activity into the data centre.

“The driver for this is that there is a whole bunch of stuff happening in the UK right now that is quite interesting. The roll-out of 5G, the roll-out of FTTP. Suddenly there’s a lot of bandwidth available,” Michie says.

“What is fascinating to me is that there are more than 400,000 developers in the UK, and I think they will be creating the new applications that use that bandwidth. So network becomes really important,” he adds.

When it comes to general observations on how this will shape the future role of the data centre, Michie sees leadership positions for the industry on key issues involving the value chain and sustainability.

“A data centre is inherently a good thing in sustainability overall. However, we have to be smarter, more focused on how we spend our capital on making things more sustainable,” he says, citing optimisation, power reduction and close temperature monitoring as priority areas for quick wins.

“There is a great deal that can be done with existing infrastructure, and I think the change will be operators putting their capital more actively into things that help their sustainability initiatives in the marketplace,” he says.

On the value chain, Michie sees operators progressing to become network providers themselves – with extras.

“Previously, you would open a data centre and invite carriers in. You get as many as you can on as diverse routes as possible and you take your customers, talk to whoever you want and then they would provision the network. Many data centres worked that way,” he says.

Today, Michie continues, those providers are “moving up the value chain to provide the network themselves and they are doing it from their existing experience with a service attached”.

“They are in control of the whole user experience – and I think that’s probably the right thing to do. We are doing it,” he adds. Of course, rules of engagement must be established with carriers in carrier-neutral facilities, but Michie says “the answer to that is good relationships with the carriers and making sure the rules are clear”.

For Pulsant the future is well planned for. Much like Rome, though, the edge cannot be built in a day – or by a single player. There will, no doubt, be further expansions for Pulsant and Zayo’s digital ecosystem, but beyond that, Michie says, there is a role for government policy as well as a need for “organisations to get in the middle and bring an ecosystem together” – organisations such as Chambers of Commerce.

He concludes: “Our ambition is to be the nationwide provider with our edge services; not right down to the last mile, but just before that. Think of it as a bridging role – as bringing equality of service out to those regional ecosystems that are perhaps a little underserved today.”